Required Reading

Today’s New York Times Magazine’s cover story is "Open Source Spying."  The teaser after the title asks "The nation’s intelligence agencies are giving their cold-war-era computer systems a complete makeover.  But will blogs and wikis really help spies uncover terrorist plots?"

It’s a fantastic and fascinating article, and should be read by anyone interested in Enterprise 2.0 or national security.  It describes how the agencies’ IT current infrastructures are extensively fragmented, partly by design and partly because of uncoordinated investment, and how this fragmentation dramatically impedes analysts’ abilities to do their most fundamental job:  connecting the dots.  

As author Clive Thompson points out, dot-connecting for a fluid and highly decentralized enemy like al Qaida means something very different than for a monolithic, siloed, and hierarchical foe like the Soviet Union.  And the agencies’ existing knowledge management and groupware systems (which is essentially what they are), which have consumed billions of dollars of investment, really aren’t well-suited for the new task. And some efforts, like a $170 million FBI case management system, have simply been abandoned.  

Thompson is astute and even-handed about the challenges faced by E2.0 efforts within the agencies, and the article is far from uniformly optimistic.  Yet I found that it contained some very encouraging news.  First and foremost, it appears that many of the most important people at the top of the recently-established Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) sincerely want E2.0 to take root.  These people include the CIO, the head of analysis, and his CTO; I imagine these gentlemen have some clout, and know how to get things done within the establishment.  

They’re certainly willing to solicit and try new ideas.  the DNI has experimented with blogs and wikis, including an ‘Intellipedia‘, and sponsored the Galileo Awards, where analysts could submit essays describing new approaches.  The title of the winning essay should gladden our hearts:  "The Wiki and the Blog:  Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community."

It also seems the DNI is making some smart choices with its E2.0 initiatives.  They’re building a three-tier Intellipedia, for example, that will mirror the existing access levels of Top Secret, Secret, and Unclassified.  I hope they’re ensuring that searches in the more tightly restricted environments can also return results from the lower levels, and that some form of tagging exists.  

The article touches on a number of subjects familiar to readers of this blog, including:

  • The efficacy of link-based search.  Thompson writes that "Searching Intelink [an inter-agency Intranet and document repository] thus resembles searching the Internet before blogs and Google came along —  a lot of disconnected information, hard to sort through."
  • The frustrations of technically friendly newbies when they walk into old-school computing environments.  The article opens by describing the reaction of one Web 2.0-savvy new analyst to the tools at his disposal within the Defense Intelligence Agency: "The reality was a colossal letdown."  
  • Resistance by  middle managers.  Wilson Dizard, a longtime government technology watcher, is quoted as saying that "You have all these little barons at N.S.A. and C.I.A. and whatever, and a lot of people think they’re not going to do what the D.N.I says, if push comes to shove."
  • The threat of security breaches.  Although I think security risks within corporations are often overblown, they’re deadly serious in intelligence work.  The identities of confidential informants can be revealed, and moles like Robert Hanssen can sell the information they find on internal networks.   
  • The huge role of top management.  Given bureaucracy, massive investment in legacy systems, and the inertia of large organizations, it’s pretty clear nothing significant will happen unless people at the top drive change.  
  • The importance of many types of contribution.  "The most valuable spy system is one that can quickly assemble disparate pieces that are already lying around — information gathered by doctors, aid workers, police officers or security guards at corporations."
  • The advantages of an Intranet over the Internet.  Intellipedia has not been subject to vandalism, probably in part because all contributions can be traced to their source.  
  • The ability for new connections to form.  "Intellipedia’s Nigeria page will… attract contributions from other intelligence employees who have expertise [the head of analysis] isn’t yet aware of —  an analyst who served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria, or a staff member who has recently traveled there."
  • The minimum efficient scale for emergence.  The article questions whether the most restrictive Top Secret Intellipedia will have enough members to yield good content.  

The article presents a wonderful case study for any organization considering or embarking on E2.0 efforts, and I have trouble thinking of a situation where it’s more important to get it right.  

If there are a lot of people in the agencies who want to catch bad guys more than they want to protect fiefdoms, and if there are no horrible early PR disasters or security breaches, and if people see that contributing can actually help their careers, then E2.0 should take off in the US intelligence community.  I hope like crazy that the first of these conditions is already true.  The other two are not foregone conclusions (remember the prediction markets within the Department of Defense that got branded as ‘terror markets,’ and had to be shut down?), but neither are they highly unlikely.  

After reading the article, I have some confidence that the intelligence agencies will be able to transform themselves by adopting Enterprise 2.0 tools, methods, and mindsets.  The top and the bottom want the transformation to take place.  Let’s all hope this is enough.